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Self-Deception and Morality  

by Mike W. Martin


Despite the best efforts of philosophers, self-deception is a murky subject. Taking the broad approach, Mike W. Martin packs a large number of moral thinking errors into the category of self-deception, doing a fine job organizing Self-Deception and Morality into five sections.


Martin explores evasion tactics such as ignoring, detaching, rationalizing, using distractions, and engaging in doublethink.


He then covers the “inner hypocrisy tradition,” the theory that self-deception destroys character, a well done chapter.


The authenticity tradition promoted by existentialists saw avoidance of self-deception as the primary human value. Existentialists emphasized choice, passion, freedom, integrity, autonomy, integration, commitment, and individuality, often splendid traits, but overemphasized at the expense of character.


The “moral ambiguity tradition” is the the too-ambiguous-not-responsible tradition. It finds humans blameless, because fault is difficult to determine, because we are allegedly mentally ill or deterministic creatures or both. The ambiguity tradition has little to recommend it. John Staddon, among many, excoriates this view.


The “vital lies tradition” offers instances where deception is sufficiently beneficial, for example, ignoring minor flaws while dating. We must be careful with vital lies, however, it is all-to-easy to think harmful self-deceptions beneficial. The weakest section hints that value claims, in particular ends (as in means and ends), can not be facts or arrived at from other facts.


The world of self-deception is complicated, making it difficult to determine benefits arising from the study of self-deception. Pointing out reasoning errors--straw person, missing quantification, gambler's fallacy, etc.--and leaving it at that is easier. Getting into the inner workings of motives for a faulty conclusion or action is problematic.


I do not want to go around trying to figure out whether someone who calls the earth flat is engaging in rationalization, willful ignorance, or whatever.


Even if you ignore the technical language of self-deception, the study of self-deception may have some benefits. You need not make ressentiment a part of everyday vocabulary to appreciate thinking about how bad hierarchies of values can be constructed. The ideas herein aid self-examination, but the land of self-deception may quickly become a land of misplaced analysis.


Martin's work is not an argument for deciding which theory of self-deception is best, if any. Instead, it explores the theories using literary and real-life examples.


A surprising emphasis on singling out one person for moral blame frequents this book. Individuals have varying amounts of responsibility and are guilty for a variety of failings. The burglar is 100 percent guilty of burglary, but the victim may be guilty of indiscretion for leaving his car unlocked and a box of CDs on his seat. This does not lesson the fault of the burglar or the punishment he deserves. Cases where only one individual deserves all the criticism are rare.


Martin tries to avoid false dichotomies between social and personal morality, concluding by voicing frustration over the way individuals close their minds to whole areas of major moral concern. Comparatively minor issues such as cloning and the death penalty get the attention. Weapons of mass destruction and basic human rights get ignored. Recommended.


Book review article by J.T. Fournier, last updated June 29, 2009.



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